Bradford City 1
Kinsella (OG) 83
By Jason McKeown
Perhaps those history maker displays that have been added to the training ground office walls are beginning to pay off. Maybe, as Gary Bowyer was sprucing up the club’s Woodhouse Grove facilities during the summer, the manager stumbled on an old training manual that has been missing since Phil Parkinson’s exit. Whatever the inspiration, Bradford City are redeveloping a skill they had forgotten in recent years – the ability to win ugly.
This was the kind of result and performance that frequently populated the Parkinson years. A gritty three points, dug out through hard graft and sheer persistence. This game was not one for football purists and won’t be particularly remembered when the season gets reviewed next May. But these kinds of afternoons and results were, under Parkinson at least, the vital foundations to bigger successes.
Gary Bowyer will certainly be hoping he’s on the right path to doing the same. The Bantams were fortunate to win this game. Walsall probably deserved at least a point, and were a decent winger and a competent striker short of claiming a first home win of the season. But during an afternoon when City just had to keep scrapping, they proved they were up for the fight.
In keeping with the game, the winning goal that finally came off the head of Walsall’s Liam Kinsella was a strange scrambled effort that won’t trouble any goal of the month competition. James Vaughan had earlier seen a seemingly perfect first half goal ruled out, before woefully blasting a penalty over the bar eight minutes before City’s late goal. Once again, City were indebted to Richard O’Donnell, who produced two stunning saves along the way.
After the match, Bowyer talked proudly about the toughness of the team. The grit and battling qualities of his players is chalk and cheese to last season’s underachievers. A year ago City would not have won in these kind of circumstances – and so it is heartening to witness this stronger mentality. Bowyer rightly made reference to the number of times already this season these players have kept going to the end. It is very encouraging.
At this level especially, no team will be able to push for promotion without the ability to win ugly. These are good standards to restore.
The big but, however, remains over just what this side is capable of achieving beyond grinding out results. Once again, this was not a good City performance. Cohesive, attacking football continues to be seen sporadically at best. Just like last weekend’s victory over Northampton, this display didn’t do much to suggest Bowyer is getting close to solving the formation and system issues that have hampered performances.
Having kept the same XI, Bowyer will surely feel concerned to once again observe a central midfield easily overrun by opposition lining up with three in the middle of the park. Danny Devine and Matt Palmer struggled to stop red shirts cutting through to set up attacks. And when in possession, the pair often were out numbered and short of options. Although Dylan Connolly started well, he faded and was wasteful with the ball. Harry Pritchard could not replicate the heights of his last two performances.
It meant that City’s front two were once again left to feed on scraps, particularly a well marshalled Clayton Donaldson. The pair could have shown more at times, as they caused attacks to break down by taking the wrong option. Across midfield and in attack, it was 6 out of 10s all round.
Bowyer made a tactical tweak in the second half that led to success – despite the revised formation still proving unconvincing. Callum Cooke and Shay McCartan replaced Devine and Connolly, and Bowyer plumped for a diamond with McCartan at the tip, Pritchard and Cooke out wide and Palmer at the base. The full backs, Kevlin Mellor and Connor Wood, were encouraged to get forward and provide the width.
McCartan struggled to get involved in the game, and his passing range was off. Cooke was less influential compared to last week’s game-changing cameo, and Walsall found space out-wide in the gaps between the narrow diamond and the full backs.
Nevertheless, a dismal game instantly livened up because of Bowyer’s changes, with both teams suddenly looking more likely to score. Mellor went down easily in the box and rightfully had his penalty appeal turned down. The penalty Vaughan won also looked soft. As he blasted his spot kick into the stands, it felt like it would be one of those days. But you can’t keep a good man down, and eventually Vaughan was kicking the corner flag in celebration, as he attempted to claim the goal as his.
What’s striking about those final 20 minutes was that – just like against Northampton – Bowyer was prepared to throw caution to the wind. He gambled to an extent, risking losing the match late on, but was rewarded through the quality of his charges. Keep it tight, and go for it towards the end – this was how Parkinson so often used to play it.
With a defence as good as City’s, it can certainly work to a point. Ben Richards-Everton and Paudie O’Connor were once again outstanding, ably supported by the two full backs and a goalkeeper truly back on top of his game. City have only conceded five times in their opening eight league games. At this stage a year ago, they’d shipped in 13.
There are growing reasons to be positive about City’s chances this season. They are solid and tough to beat. They have resilience and will battle to the final whistle. The players look like they really care. League Two so far appears to be weak. We have a team with the capability to push for promotion.
But we still need to play better football at times. City need to be more in control of games, especially over a full 90 minutes. We’ve got to fix the hole in central midfield. We need to start properly supplying Vaughan and Donaldson. We’ve got to score more goals.
Scrapping to victory like this is brilliant, but it can’t be the height of our capabilities. It needs to be the platform to build on. The building blocks for bigger and better.